The news in sports today is that the NCAA is thinking about a fundamental restructuring of college athletics after allegations surfaced that University of Miami football players received all kinds of benefits, including drugs and prostitutes, from a high roller convicted of securities fraud. This follows in the wake of similar scandals at Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU, all of whom have been investigated or sanctioned by the NCAA in the past 18 months.
As it turns out, I and my colleague, Dr. John Boogaert, were commissioned to study the problem of big time athletics at Fresno State University several years ago. We prepared an extensive report. This report analyzes why college athletics gets off track so easily and is so corruptible. The fixes, just like any conflict, seem simple, but are very difficult to implement. Keeping corruption out of college sports when there is so much money involved and success is equated to winning is almost impossible.
We see the same dynamics in corrupt regimes at the international level as well. When Hamid Karzai accepts suitcases of US dollars from Iran as a bribe, he is not much different fundamentally from an athlete accepting bribes from a booster. Of course, in international affairs, if you are not cheating your are not trying hard enough. I suppose the same could be said for big time collegiate athletics.
What we do know is that coercion does not work. Schools like USC get sanctioned, have bowl titles taken away, and lose scholarships. They “suffer” ignominy for a few years, but when the punishment passes, the game begins anew. Mid-tier schools like Fresno State maintain relatively clean football programs, but the premier high school players are not attracted to “clean” programs. They are attracted to the glitz and fame of big time programs. Thus, USC’s recruiting and fund raising efforts are not much damaged, and the lesser schools struggle to survive. So, as in international affairs, punishing bad actors does not fundamentally change behavior in the NCAA. The solutions, which we outline in our report, are more subtle and nuanced. We don’t pretend to think that our answers will solve the problem, but transparency first and foremost, will help.